Twenty Years Ago Today

July 15, 2016 |

This post was sponsored by Iris Plans.

The opening line of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was this: “It was 20 years ago today….”

Well, exactly 20 years today, July 15, 1996, I became the 44th Governor of Arkansas under some of the most bizarre circumstances in the history of the nation. My predecessor, convicted weeks earlier in a federal trial, had set the date of July 15 for his resignation. It was odd that he would cling to power for another 7 weeks after the verdict, and in most circumstances, the press and the public would have demanded that he step down immediately since he was constitutionally ineligible to serve once convicted. But this WAS Arkansas, after all, and things done in the land of the Clintonistas didn’t have to follow the rules. There was no point in my trying to challenge the decision. The legislature was 90% Democrat and would have never pushed for THEIR governor to leave to make room for that interloper Republican. And the press certainly could be expected to be objective. They were reliably liberal and protective of whatever the the ruling class desired. Could a lawsuit have been filed to force the issue? Seriously? At that time, all judicial elections were partisan and almost 100% of the judges in the state were Democrats.

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The 7 weeks allowed the outgoing governor the ability to spend the remaining budget from the fiscal year that ended on July 1, and the ability to spend most of the next fiscal year’s budget in the first two weeks of the new budget year. And since about half of the state’s 1200 plus appointed positions to boards, agencies, and commissions came up for appointment on July 1, this allowed a convicted felon to appoint over 700 people whose terms would range from 1 to 10 years. Hundreds of millions were spent, I was saddled with appointments that were of the old establishment Democrat “good ol’ boy” crowd, and virtually no one said a word.

On the day of what was to be my swearing in, chaos broke loose. Although the previous Governor’s staff had mostly resigned, taken other jobs, and in many cases sold homes to relocate, and though many of my incoming staff had left their jobs, sold their homes, and moved to Little Rock to begin the transition, he called me at exactly 5 minutes before the swearing in to say he had changed his mind and wasn’t going to resign after all. It was as if the Capitol exploded. Thousands of Republicans were on hand to witness the first Republican governor in 26 years and only the 3rd since Reconstruction. The reneging of the promised resignation sent shock waves throughout the state and even Democrats in the legislature were outraged.

For the next 5 hours, two men claimed to be Governor. I called the legislative leaders to my office and told them that I planned to give the outgoing Governor an ultimatum—either resign or we would launch impeachment proceedings the following morning. It was the most surreal experience and created a Constitutional crisis. Lawyers, Supreme Court Justices, the Attorney General, and legislators all tried to consider the options. That afternoon, the Democrat Attorney General followed by the legislative leaders publicly stood with me. And late that afternoon, the outgoing Governor finally declared he would resign effective immediately when even his closest friends urged him to do so.

That was how my 10 1/2 years as Governor began. With a crisis of historic proportion. While many felt it was a horrible way for me to have to start my tenure as Governor, I look back and see it as a blessing. The sentiment dramatically and suddenly shifted from resentment of “this Republican” becoming Governor to people coming to my support and being able to see whether I had the leadership skills to handle a crisis and navigate through the unknown. It was a defining moment for me, the political structure of the state, and the future.

As the song says, “It was 20 years ago today….”

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Comments 1-1 of 1

  • Albert Corey

    07/15/2016 09:03 PM

    You showed courage at a time that it could have worked against bayou. You proved to be an effective leader and became one of the best govenors the State of Arkansas has ever seen. You are couragious, you showed you had a backbone, you walked into the lion's den and you came out victorious. God was with you and stood beside you in that whole affair. God bless and keep you Brother Mike.